May the Lesser Man Win
Parallels between boxing’s latest debacle and modern-day fighting game design
The boxing world is abuzz over the latest scandal to hit the sport. Despite all of the quantifiable and empirical evidence that could be used to indicate Manny Pacquiao was the better fighter in his bout against Timothy Bradley, he lost due to a random element of ‘boxing game design’, for lack of a better term.
In the event where a bout goes the distance, and a victor is not decided upon by KO or TKO, the victor will be determined by a three judge panel who have subjectively scored the fight on a round-by-round basis. On this particular night, the overwhelming opinion among the viewing public that Pacquiao easily won the fight did not jive with the judges scorecards, which indicated Bradley as the victor via split-decision. Though the best competitors can lose to lesser opponents in any given sport at any given time due to the natural randomness that occurs in competition, it’s infuriating for it to occur due to an ‘artificial’ random factor such as judging. Unless mankind is willing to go to inhumane lengths to determine a fair-and-square winner, this will forever be a reality of the sport.
In the early days of the fighting game genre, random factors weren’t built into the design. The victor was almost entirely determined by skill. This sport-like nature of the genre skyrocketed it to the forefront in the early 90s, but it also brought with it a fundamental game design challenge. Most video game publishers want to create experiences that will sell to the largest possible audience. However, as fighting games became more dependent on skill, most casual players or potential players abandoned the genre completely, leaving only a small minority of hardcore players to support it. How do you create a fun fighting game experience for players of all skill-levels? Early fighting games didn’t come up with an answer to this conundrum, which was a key contributor to the implosion of the genre.
Today, fighting game creators (particularly Capcom) are going beyond the standard implementation of matchmaking as a means of leveling the playing field. Most modern fighting games feature systems akin to the blue shell in the Mario Kart franchise as a means of keeping battles competitive between players of disparate skill levels. While these additional gameplay mechanics deserve some credit for the current fighting game renaissance, it can also be debated that these mechanics level the playing field in a way that undermines the fundamental element of skill.
For example, the Ultra Combo in Street Fighter IV rewards losing players with a haymaker that can turn a blowout loss into an upset win in the blink of an eye. The X-Factor in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 gives players the equivalent of an instant steroid boost that could make one character strong enough to demolish an entire team in seconds. The Gem system in Street Fighter X Tekken is the most controversial of the bunch, as players have found overpowered gems that compromise other fundamental gameplay systems. Some of the most overpowered gems in the game make the skill of defense unnecessary, as the auto block and auto throw escape gems can take care of that for you.
Though the overall impact of these field-leveling mechanics varies from game-to-game, they all open the door for Pacquiao vs. Bradley style scenarios, where the lesser competitor can steal wins thanks to artificial factors beyond the natural randomness of competition. At their best, they have somewhat helped to bridge the gap between expert players and everyone else. At their worst, losing to these systems in a fighting game is like losing a Mario Kart race you were once dominating, thanks to a random red or blue shell taking you out just before crossing the finish line.
Where you stand on the matter will ultimately depend on how much you value the element of skill in these types of games. As a competitive fighting game player that has competed in a few tournaments, I generally derive most of my fun and as a fighting game player from it. Nothing for me beats the joy of investing the time and effort to develop my technique, then proving it in the heat of battle. I enjoy it when I pass the test, but I also derive enjoyment from losing to a better opponent, and analyzing the things that set that person apart. Because of the level of importance I put on this, I don’t want to see it compromised by a field-leveling mechanic that only exists to give lesser-skilled opponents a fighting chance against those who really put the time and effort in to be good.
With that said, the value I place on skill also varies between fighting games. Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 are my bread and butter games for competitive play, but I like playing Skullgirls for fun. Unfortunately, every time I boot up that game to play online, I get smoked by a seemingly endless stream of players that take it way more seriously than I do. Without any sort of field-leveling mechanics to rely on, I’m pretty much screwed unless I’m willing to dedicate myself to getting better. Most players in this situation would simply give up before they reached a point where they could be competitive at the bottom of the matchmaking ladder.
Finding the right balance between eSport and mass appeal game is tricky. If the emphasis on skill is too high, then the casual player base will abandon your game, just like they did in the mid 90s when the pros drove everyone out of town. If the emphasis on random elements is too high, such as the current state of Street Fighter X Tekken, then the core players will abandon your game for something else that better rewards their dedication. Though it may be too late to refine the balance of boxing beyond the hiring of better judges, finding the a better balance between accessibility and skill in fighting games is something that’s still achievable.